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Saturated Manuscript at Bridget Donahue
Published in 2021 in conjuction with the exhibition Saturated Manuscript at Bridget Donahue from September 10, 2020 till October 31, 2020.
With contributions by Julia Geerlings, Dean Kissick and Erin Leland.
The Colourful Room
Dean Kissick, January 2021
Some mornings ago, thinking about what to write here, cycling down Broadway toward Times Square, I passed a man walking in the other direction, dressed in robes like a Magi, and he fixed my gaze and shouted at me, “WHY ARE YOU DYING!” It’s a good question, though I don’t have an answer.
Saturated Manuscript opened in the fall of 2020, when Manhattan had come back to life and the streets were busy again. My friend and I climbed the stairs up from the Bowery, opened the door to the gallery, and turned right into a giant drawing (Poetic Flesh) that was hard to make sense of but had a great impact. It was like discovering a forgotten tomb, or abandoned spaceship; we wandered round and felt confused. The softly drawn colours pulled us in, and forms came into view. The exhibition was a series of eight giant coloured-pencil drawings of what slowly revealed themselves as strange combinations of dying and dead bodies, newborn babies and huge, swollen genitalia. This was the sort of pagan esoteric depravity, my friend commented, where you had to stop, have a breath, take your time and look carefully and think about what’s even happening in each image.
What we saw was surprising: a naked lady splaying open her legs and lowering herself onto a dead man in a coffin; a gang of women (above) and men (below) gathered around another corpse, clearly sexually aroused; a baby born with face pressed snug against their mother’s clitoris, and other unorthodox rites of mourning, and shimmering, psychedelic displays of fertility, rendered on the monumental scale. These seemed to be pictures of spirits, or celestial beings. Art seemed to be returning to its ceremonial origins: to magical images on the walls of the caves, to symbols, to scenes of possession and transformation. Not only were these images of made-up rituals, they were also made through a solitary ritual: an artist drawing his way through thousands of pencils, giving shape to private visions that would usually stay concealed. Those lyrical visions were broken up into drawings, and as we walked around them, certain themes became sharper. Walking a ring of the gallery evoked the journey of a newborn into our world, and the passage of the dead into another.
In New York that spring, six months prior, temporary morgues were set up outside hospitals, with refrigerated trucks, painted quickly over with a single wash of white paint, waiting beside them to ferry the dead away. Graves were dug in parks on the islands for when the cemeteries overflowed. But death was still somehow hidden from view. Even when the dying were everywhere, they remained hidden. One never knows what’s going on behind closed doors in this city. The only times I felt close to death were when I saw the swirling lights of ambulances parked outside apartment buildings in the dead of night. Death has felt uncannily absent throughout the pandemic; the dead are just numbers, they’re invisible. Today we’re surrounded by death but don’t acknowledge it. We have no idea of how to give voice to this tragedy, let alone any shared rituals for coping with it, or finding communal catharsis, or hope. While Pieter Slagboom began preparing this show before the pandemic, his enduring themes have come to feel particularly urgent and to rhyme with the present.
Similarly, while sex has traditionally been related to procreation, and later to free love, which offered a vision of a new type of society, it’s increasingly now related to nothing; it’s just one of many casual pleasures on offer, just another source of dopamine. Younger generations, such as mine, are losing interest in sex, and have grown too wary of risk. We fear sex and death, which is to say we fear our nature and the stories of our lives. We’ve lost touch with what we really are.
While belief systems like Christianity, or the new worship of virtuality and the artificial, have encouraged us to separate ourselves from our biology, and the old forms of spirituality with which it’s so entwined, Pieter’s images encourage us to return to lost and frowned-upon ways of thinking in the hope of finding different perspectives. He shows how sexual arousal is all around us, every day, everywhere we go; how it’s a dominant force that mustn’t be repressed. How biology is cruel and wonderful, and heavy with contradictions. Sexuality is a sensitive topic in every culture, but we don’t deal with it well in the 21st century. Perhaps it’s us, and not our ancestors, that are the primitives, he suggests.
In Ancient Greece and Rome, which were violent but sensual civilizations, and Egypt, which revolved around a spectacular death culture, ornate cults and rituals were developed, only to later be suppressed under Christianity; and now it’s too late to find out what was going on in those societies. Take the clandestine rites of the Eleusinian Mysteries in Greece: we still have no idea what was experienced in those caves. We’ll never know. The ancients took their birth and death rites to the grave. But the role of the artist, Pieter says, is to channel those primal emotions and give them a form: and in so doing, to hopefully tip our culture over in another direction. His way of dealing with mortality is not to ignore it, but rather to obsessively depict his own death, imagining funerals and eulogies afresh in vibrant new configurations and tones. In these fantasies, the passage of the dead is often accompanied by the sexual arousal of the living. His dreams are of dying surrounded by engorged neon clitorises. He proposes that dying, that passing through the intermediate world between life and death, would be less traumatic if we were surrounded by collective arousal, by youth and lustful fertility. He opens a space for the many deep and contrary feelings a death can spark in us, from despair and suffering, to joy in life. A death can make us feel many different emotions at once, and we have to give space to all of them, in order to grieve, and not be too afraid.
His figures are drawn larger than life here. Cabin, at the far end of the gallery, shows a dead man in his coffin. The coffin is large enough that our skeletons could dance around in there. Bodies become architecture also: the girl crouching over the dead man in the coffin covers him like a dome above a church, becoming a skyline. Holes turn into doorways. Corpses and orifices are hung at eye level, daring us to come closer. The world revolves around genitalia, where our lives began, so he represents them on a grand scale, as the ancients once did with their fertility cults, and their phallic maypoles children dance around in spring.
A vagina large enough for us to step into, resting on a throbbing penis big enough to ride, appears in Muscles. Apple-green hands hold a dying couple, and by association us, back from returning to the womb in Fingers II, preventing us from dragging ourselves back into our mothers. You can never go home again. Another piece, Fingers, shows fingers pressed against glistening vaginal lips and parted over sexes forming the walls of a cave, or the stonework of an old gothic church, rendered in the colours of stained glass. These images are massive but light and heavenly; they welcome us in rather than bearing down on us. Their bodies burn like phosphorescent roses. Just as the show’s title evokes the illuminated manuscripts of medieval times, strolling around it reminded me of wandering the second floor of Paris’s Sainte-Chapelle on a summer’s day, with light pouring in from every side, giving a feeling of having stepped into heaven.
In Toes, vaginas and breasts form a metabolic architecture around the dead. Resting on this beating sarcophagus are five massive pairs of feet. The figures above them cannot be seen, but we look down at the burial from their giants’ perspective, their gods’ perspective, floating around in space. The gallery wall is turned into a hole in the ground. Everywhere you turn perspectives are warped and twisted as if seen through a distorting lens. The next picture along, Poetic Flesh, shows a birth from the viewpoint of the baby being born. The baby has a large penis and is aroused. His penis, his mother’s clitoris, the umbilical cord joining them and their bodies glow amber together. Lines and colours blur. Male and female genitalia come together. An image of birth becomes an orgiastic aurora borealis, a swirling abstraction. Standing in front of it feels like hallucinating the beginning of your life.
These pictures tell a story but it’s a story that loops around like a Möbius strip. It has no beginning or end. It’s an endless cycle of sex, birth and death, which are shown to be parts of the same process. The exhibition conjures an experience of ritual. Its grand, immersive panels swallow us up as a colour field painting might, and carry us into another space in their arms. In this space we catch glimpses of new ways to die. It’s like a lost scene from Ovid: like we’re dying and surrounded by sexually aroused goddesses, gods, heroines and heroes.
Pieter draws rituals in which fertility gives meaning to death. These rituals may never take place, and don’t have to. His drawings allow forbidden things to happen; things that won’t happen in our reality. By dreaming of death, this death in many colours, we might live without fear. There’s nothing to be afraid of. While these colours may appear unnatural, in that they don’t reflect how our bodies look, they point to another, invisible level of nature, and the powerful forces that drive it. Sexuality is envisioned as a bright and mysterious force that twirls around all of us: a mystical part of the cosmos, and the wonder and glory of life, rather than a specific desire located within the individual. A force that binds us all together from the beginning to the end of our lives.
To my stranger guest
By Julia Geerlings
She longs to fold to her maternal breast
Part of herself, yet to herself unknown;
To see and to salute the stranger guest,
Fed with her life through many a tedious moon.
After a long day I lay on the couch with a rooibos tea, and switch on the television to find Frankenstein 1931 playing on national TV. I recognize the thunder penetrating the lab instantly. Lightning bolts cast shadows of Victor Frankenstein and his faithful hunchback assistant on the walls. A mummified creature, bound to a stretcher, descends into the laboratory after the scientist engages a lever. “It’s moving…” “It’s alive… It’s ALIVE!” “Now I know what it feels like to be God!”.
I grab a handful of chips, put my feet up, and place my hands on my belly. I take the time to feel you moving inside me. I feel you twisting around my abdomen, kicking in my ribcage and using my bladder as a trampoline. This is my second pregnancy and it still feels surreal. You are inside of me, but you are not me. Your little body feels like a part of me. You are a guest I have not yet laid eyes upon, but I couldn’t be closer to you. I already feel a strong love towards you, my ‘stranger guest’.
As your movements increased over the last few months, and you explored the limits of my internal being, I became estranged from my body: my hips rounded, my breasts grew, my nipples darkened, my hair thickened and my gums grew sore. “Cells fuse, split, and proliferate; volumes grow, tissues stretch, and body fluids change rhythm, speeding up or slowing down. Within the body, growing as a graft, indomitable, there is an other. And no one is present, within that simultaneously dual and alien space, to signify what is going on. ‘It happens, but I’m not there.’ ‘I cannot realize it, but it goes on.’ Motherhood’s impossible syllogism.”
Almost two hundred years after Barbauld’s opening poem above, philosopher and writer Julia Kristeva describes the same haunted feeling. The line of the poem “fed with her life” has an ominous double edge: pregnancy often really meant surrendering your life to a stranger. For Kristeva, the maternal body is the epitome of abjection. The placenta simultaneously connects and separates mother and child. A pregnant woman literally embodies something foreign – an ‘other’ person – as much as she experiences foreign feelings and hormones.
In our literary and philosophical tradition, these topics have only been approached by male philosophers and theorists in an attempt to control, rather than understand the pregnant body. This violent superficiality has only recently been broken by female feminist writers such as Kristeva, who deepened our understanding of motherhood and the experience of pregnancy, and inspired me to rethink the distinction between myself and the other, between my body and mind, as well as the separation between life and death.
On the flatscreen of my living room, the monster lives, the monster kills, the monster dies, following the dark fate of his father, Dr Frankenstein. Our relation too, my stranger, is bound by a flirtatious relation with death. The prints of our ultrasounds, attached to my fridge, feature your tiny skeleton, dancing in the prenatal darkness. These images summon tragic memories of the times of Mary Shelley’s novel, when the risk of death during pregnancy was higher for mother and child. She had suffered the birth and death of an infant, and wrote Frankenstein while being pregnant again. Victor Frankenstein’s failure as a “parent” and the birth of the “creature” by reanimating dead body parts, have been seen as an expression of the anxieties which accompany pregnancy, giving birth, and particularly maternity. Shelley herself ended up losing five of her six children, of which she gave heartbreaking accounts in her diary.
I can’t wait to meet you, my little invisible being. When it’s time you will free yourself from my womb. Then, from inside, we shall waltz one last time together. I will ride the waves of contractions, while you crawl and spin through my pelvis. In the final act, you shall enter the ring of fire while I push you through the birth canal. If everything goes well you will arrive to the world here, at home, next to the couch where I’m laying now. That moment is losing you, like losing a limb and meeting you, my little stranger guest. A part of me that dies, and is reborn as a your mother.